Last year writer and broadcaster Kenan Malik was invited to the University of Cape Town in South Africa to deliver the T. B. Davie Memorial Lecture, an annual talk devoted to “academic and human freedom.” Malik’s talk, “Free speech in an age of identity politics,” was a spirited defense of untrammeled free speech, and included passages like this:
. . . we can see how in the marriage of identity politics and the therapeutic society, the very character of free speech has become transformed. In a world in which many reject the possibility – indeed the desirability – of common values and goals; in which the prospects of fundamental social transformation seem to have ebbed away; in which societies have become more fragmented and identities more parochial; in which words can appear not as a means through which to find our common humanity but as constant threats to our self-identity; in which there is a tendency to deprecate the idea of moral autonomy and to view the human individual as vulnerable and damaged and in need of protection – in such a world, it is not difficult to see how censorship, the means through which to restrain the power of words, can become transformed into a good.
. . . It is precisely because we do live in plural societies that we need the fullest extension possible of free speech. In plural societies, it is both inevitable and important that people offend the sensibilities of others. Inevitable, because where different beliefs are deeply held, clashes are unavoidable. Almost by definition such clashes express what it is to live in a diverse society. And so they should be openly resolved than suppressed in the name of ‘respect’ or ‘tolerance’.
And important because any kind of social change or social progress means offending some deeply held sensibilities. Or to put it another way: ‘You can’t say that!’ is all too often the response of those in power to having their power challenged. To accept that certain things cannot be said is to accept that certain forms of power cannot be challenged. Human beings, as Salman Rushdie has put it, ‘shape their futures by arguing and challenging and saying the unsayable; not by bowing their knee whether to gods or to men.’
Good stuff! Unfortunately, Malik’s message was firmly repudiated by the University’s treatment of his successor, Flemming Rose, invited to give the 2016 Davie Memorial Lecture. Rose was the cultural editor of the Jyllands Posten, the Danish magazine that published the well known “Mohammed Cartoons” that enraged all Muslims and brought many newspapers to their knees, fearful of even showing the cartoons because of possible violent reprisal from offended Muslims. (Yale University Press even published a book about the cartoons without showing any of them! You can see them at the Wikipedia link in this paragraph.) Rose is now the foreign affairs editor of the same magazine.
After the University invited Rose to come, they started to have second thoughts. They have now withdrawn the invitation, with the rationale given in a July 12 letter written by the University’s Vice Chancellor, Dr. Max Price, to the Academic Freedom Committee (copy here). The letter is a masterpiece of evasion, cowardice, and duplicity. As Price says at the beginning of his pusillanimous screed:
No freedom, however, is unlimited. As with all rights, context and consequence are also critical. The right to academic freedom is fundamental, but cannot be exercised in a vacuum. We have a responsibility to exercise this right with due, thoughtful consideration of other equally important rights, and the possibility of other harmful consequences. Indeed, in terms of our Constitution (as in all modern democratic constitutions), every right is subject to limitation by law of general application which complies with a number of requirements, the most significant of which is that the limitation must be proportional to the context in which it operates, and to the impact which its exercise will have on those affected by its exercise.
And then Price lists the harms that would happen to his University were Rose allowed to speak. A brief excerpt from Price’s letter follows; the words are his but where there are ellipses I’ve left out some text for brevity:
1. Provoking conflict on campus. Public order on many campuses is in a fragile state and in some cases volatile. It would be ill-advised to add a highly contentious speaker to the mix at this time. Our consultations have convinced us that bringing Mr Rose to UCT would generate widespread protest and disruption. Mr Rose is regarded by many around the world as right wing, Islamophobic, someone whose statements have been deliberately provocative, insulting and possibly amount to hate speech, and an editor of a “Our Mission is to be an outstanding teaching and research university, educating for life and addressing the challenges facing our society.” publication that many believe took a bigoted view of freedom of expression. . .
2. The security risks of presenting the lecture. The rise of Islamophobia, the undeniable turmoil in the Middle East in general, the Palestinian question, the rise in extremist terrorist groups, and the violent consequences of these factors in the world (including West and East Africa) is the context in which one must consider the consequences of hosting Mr Rose. In particular, the reality of the rise of extremism in almost every established religion, has made the selective defence of blasphemy particularly hazardous and provocative, probably even more so than when the cartoons were originally published. . . . Mr Rose is seen by many as a persona non grata and while most would protest peacefully against him, we believe there is a real danger that among those offended by the cartoons, an element may resort to violence. We are convinced his presence at this time would lead to vehement and possibly violent protest against him and against UCT.
3. Bringing this speaker to deliver the TB Davie lecture in the current environment might retard rather than advance academic freedom on campus. Everyone is deeply aware of the very testing circumstances that pertain to freedom of expression about controversial ideas in this country at present, particularly on university campuses. Our campuses have become charged spaces, in which ideological and social fault-lines have become intensely politicised, sometimes violently so. We are committed to weathering these storms in ways that acknowledge and protect the need for safe spaces to confront and debate such matters. We know that many within our universities don’t feel safe to engage, which undermines the spirit of mutual tolerance and understanding. This is a deeply worrying situation which all adherents of academic freedom should find disconcerting, and ultimately unacceptable. Academic freedom cannot survive, let alone flourish, in such an atmosphere. But will progress on this issue be advanced by inviting someone who represents a provocatively – potentially violently – divisive view to make the case for a considered version of academic freedom that is avowedly sensitive to the concurrent rights to dignity and freedom from harm?
This is all (pardon my French) bullshit. What they have done is consult people after the invitation was issued, only to find—surprise!—that Rose’s actions were controversial. What that means is that many Muslims didn’t like them and, in fact, killed some people in response. Price, afraid of controversy or Muslim extremist response on his campus, and completely disregarding what Malik said the year before, decided to avoid possible violence or controversy by disinviting Rose. The last bit—the claim that inviting Rose would hinder rather than advance academic freedom—is pure Orwellian doublspeak. How does it advance that freedom by disinviting a “provocative” speaker? Vice-Chancellor Price should be ashamed of himself.
But the best takedown of the University and Price’s letter was by Malik himself, in a piece at his website Pandaemonium called “Academic freedom and academic cowardice.” It’s a devastating indictment of the cowardice of the disinvitation, which does amount to censorship, and I’ll give just the last paragraphs (note: Malik was born in India but moved to England at a young age):
Does the UCT executive really believe that the preservation of academic freedom requires it to invite only those speakers who cause no provocation or raise tension? Does it imagine, in other words, that one can only preserve academic freedom by inviting speakers with whom the audience is likely to agree? In which case, what is the point of such speakers speaking?
In disinviting Flemming Rose because some condemn him as offensive or Islamophobic, the UCT executive is not only undermining academic freedom, it is also blindly entering a fraught debate within Muslim communities – and supporting the conservatives against the progressives. What is called ‘offence to a community’ is more often than not actually a struggle within communities. There are hundreds of thousands, within Muslim communities in the West, and within Muslim-majority countries across the world, challenging religious-based reactionary ideas and policies and institutions. There are writers, artists, political activists, daily putting their lives on the line in facing down blasphemy laws, standing up for equal rights and fighting for democratic freedoms; people like Sabeen Mahmud, the Pakistani rights activist shot dead last year by religious militants; or Bangladeshi bloggers such as Nazimuddin Samad and Avijit Roy, hacked to death for their blasphemies; or Raif Badawi, the Saudi blogger senstenced to seven years’ imprisonment and a thousand lashes for ‘insulting Islam’. Such issues are live in South Africa, too. Last year, the writer ZP Dala was violently assaulted in Durban for expressing her admiration of Salman Rushdie, and subsequently forced by the local community into a mental hospital, apparently to cure her of her blasphemous views. For such figures a ‘safe space’ means not a place in which to hide from unpalatable ideas, but a space in which their lives are not threatened. Every time an institution such as UCT attempts to censor a speaker for ‘giving offence’ or for their ‘blasphemous views’, it betrays the struggles of those such as Sabeen Mahmud, Nazimuddin Samad, Avijit Roy, Raif Badawi and ZP Dala.
That’s just damn eloquent.
I’ve written to Vice Chancellor Price, whose cowardly letter was dated July 12 of this year, and if you wish to make your views known, his address is public; you can find it on the letterhead here.